therapy clinic
My dojang for the next six months

According to WordPress, I started this draft at 12:16 PM on July 9, 2020. My original plan for this post was to recount how I was several weeks into longer, more intense taekwondo training back at the dojang after doing thirty-minute home workouts for two months in quarantine, the differences among the two types of training, and what it revealed to me about my stamina, strength, and skill. 

My original plan also included describing in detail the invigorating, intense, difficult class I took on my forty-first birthday. I was going to talk about how strong I felt and yet how far I had to go. I was going to say I wished I had the bikini body and sparring stamina I had in February and how I’d have to spend months getting it backHere’s a little excerpt:
“I was kicking so hard I swear my BLADDER hurt. I sucked in shaky, audible gasps. I was nearly in tears from the tax on my body, and I don’t cry in taekwondo.”

But this is 2020, and nothing this year is as it seems. The night of July 9, I tore my ACL.

I don’t like the title of this post, but I’m keeping it as a reminder of how life and priorities and plans can change in an instant. That’s the real “hard truth.” 

My ACL tore, I had reconstruction surgery two weeks later, and I am a week and one day into recovery and rehab. This is how I’ll be spending my summer. No need to worry about the bikini body. 

By using the loaner continuous passive motion machine (CPM), I can now sort of comfortably bend my knee up to about ninety degrees. I can’t do that on my own…yet. I am fairly disciplined and stubborn, so without angering the Monkey’s Paw gods of 2020, I will tentatively say I have a positive outlook for what I think will be a lengthy but ultimately successful recovery. I’m not even thinking about taekwondo right now, though. I just want to be able to fully bend and straighten my right leg. (Which is needed for chambering and executing kicks, but that will come later.)

Rehab began before I even went into the pre-op area with my cheery nurse friends Alice and Angie. My cousin’s wife, a physical therapist and recovered ACL reconstruction patient herself, gave me a few pointers that were later echoed by my trusty, long-term physical therapist/magician “Cody” (name changed).

Cody appeared in blog posts a few years ago as I was rehabbing a nasty hamstring injury and shows up near the end of my memoir. We have known each other for over ten years, and he is the only person besides my surgeon whom I trust to bring my leg back to life. We had an hour-long phone call a few days before my surgery, during which he talked me off the ledge about some of my fears, and assigned a few exercises to do while I waited to go under the knife. I did them faithfully, even the morning of my surgery. 

He said I should do the exercises beforehand because I wouldn’t be able to lift my leg much right after surgery. I didn’t believe him.

He was right. I’m better now, but damn, those first few days…

There’s no rest for the wicked knee surgery patient. Even before the anesthesia wore off I was trying out my new CPM the evening I came home. The next day with some help I set up camp in my home office and committed to spending several hours a day letting the machine work its magic. Friends told me to take it easy. I got annoyed. 

Surgery was on a Friday. Physical therapy was on a Monday. I finally took the dressing off my leg to reveal a swollen, yellowed limb. I say limb because at the time it didn’t really look like a leg. I couldn’t distinguish the shape of my kneecap, and it was frozen in a slightly bent pose, not unlike a Barbie doll. I had a few sutures and steri-strips covering longer incisions, plus a long line of bruising from calf to thigh. My mother insisted via text on a picture. I reluctantly sent it to her with the plea not to share it with the entire family.

After my caregiver frantically helped me shove on my shoes (I could do the left one; hopeless on the right), and I whined and trembled all the way down my steep stairs, I was dropped off at the big hospital where I had the surgery (and where I happen to work sometimes). I was on a mission. I had stuff to do! First I needed to get FMLA paperwork from my doctor’s office, as required by my employer. Check. Then I needed to go to employee health to turn in said paperwork so my computer access would be turned back on (it’s cut off when I’m on medical leave), and I could continue working from home. Afterwards I’d need to get back to the clinic for my first physical therapy session. 

After securing the paperwork I clomped over to a checkpoint between the orthopedic/sports medicine clinic and the hospital’s large cafeteria. I chatted with an employee doing temperature checks and mask hand-outs. She offered me a wheelchair, and I cheerfully declined. I’d seen people move around on crutches before. I could do this! I proudly started booking it, slamming my crutches into the ground, and slinging my body forward determinedly.

Not long after clearing the cafeteria I regretted turning down the wheelchair offer. How did people do this? My arms were straining, and a thin sheen of sweat lined my underarms and back. I started to pant. This is a very large hospital, and the employee health department was the equivalent of at least one city block, maybe more, away from where I started. Showing up sweaty and exhausted wasn’t going to bode well for my return to work. My doctor probably wouldn’t like the thought of me slinging myself all over the hospital campus three days after he rebuilt my knee.  

I asked for transport back to the sports medicine clinic the moment I crutched into employee health and was thankfully still cleared to get my computer access back by the friendly staff nurse. A nice young man showed up with a wheelchair, hoping I hadn’t waited long, and he whisked me to my destination as I asked him how he liked his job.

“I should have taken the wheelchair the first time!” I called to the woman posted at the entrance to the cafeteria. She laughed and waved.

Cody and I were reunited once again. This time he wore a mask and plastic face guard, and I also had a mask, but we immediately picked up where we’d left off a few years ago. Another therapist who used to hold a kicking pad for me while I balanced on a BOSU gave me a jokey stinkeye, and I told him my arms still worked so I could punch him. One of the receptionists perked up and remarked that she hadn’t seen me in a while. 

I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing when you are greeted like Norm from Cheers when you enter the physical therapy clinic.  

Cody and I spent our first session talking about my surgery and how I’d been faring the first few days with the CPM. He adjusted my crutches so I could move around on them more easily and taught me how to walk up and down the stairs with them. He took some assessments of how far I could bend my knee on my own (about 70 degrees) and how much I could straighten it.

Some things never change. Cody tormenting me with physical pain is one of them. After a few little stretches Cody slid a foam half-cylinder under my left foot and said he wanted me to do this with the other foot. He nudged my right leg up in the air and…

“AHH! Put it under! Put it under!” I yelled. My right leg was burning, and my knee felt like it had a twenty-five pound weight on it. I could tell he was smiling under his mask.

“Just appreciate that feeling for a moment,” he said calmly. (I hate you, I thought)

Finally he put the foam piece under my ankle and told me to let gravity straighten out my right leg…which for now (a week later as I right this), feels very difficult and taxing. I can feel the back of my knee trying to stretch out. 

We moved out of the exam room to one of the tables, where I did some simple exercises I could do at home (including ones he’d talked me through before my surgery), and he did a very gentle massage of my knee. I felt like my right quadriceps muscle had melted, and I had to rebuild it from the ground up. If you look at my legs side by side it kind of looks that way too. 

“You look so much better than when you came in,” Cody said admiringly as I slowly crutched through the clinic back to the reception desk. Rather than muscling my body through space with mostly my arms, I could delicately walk. My doctor said I could put 50% of my body weight on my right leg, and Cody encouraged me to do so.

“You can put more weight on that right leg,” he said as I crutched over the small basketball court in the clinic. “Even more…more…like you’re stepping on a bug. Squish that bug!” 

Out I went, moving easier than when I entered the hospital. I proudly showed my caregiver how I could walk up the stairs (very slowly, but with relative ease), and set up a new Theraband for some standing leg exercises. 

So that’s what getting back into shape will be for me this year: walking, standing, bending, straightening. Running, jumping, and kicking are on the back burner for now, and I’m okay with that.


Stay tuned for my upcoming book– “Kicking and Screaming: a Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts” published by She Writes Press. Coming to a bookseller near you April 20, 2021!

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*Names changed

4 thoughts on “The Hard Truth of Getting Back Into Shape – Before and After

  1. I’m 38 and just tore my acl 2 months ago. I’ve been doing Krav Maga for about 10 years. Because of insurance I still don’t have a surgery date. I’m dreading the year long recovery. Thank you for this blog. It’s great to read the optimism from another martial artist. I pray my doctors and physical therapists treat me like an athlete and not a little old lady with a bum knee. 🙂 Can you do roundhouse kicks again?

    1. Dannie, I’m so sorry I’m just now responding. I didn’t see the comment earlier. Very sorry about your injury. It sucks, but it DOES get better. I can do roundhouse kicks and now I can kinda, when I’m feeling brave, do 360 kicks, which is what took me down in the first place. 😀

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